LIVE AT PRIVATE CLUB

Chris Coyne

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LIVE AT PRIVATE CLUB



Seeped in heartbreak and regret, this rare recording of Héctor Lavoe in concert during the last chapter of his career is meant to be studied and enjoyed by serious salsa aficionados. If you are not yet familiar with the magic of El Cantante de los Cantantes (the singer of all singers), listening to such classic studio albums as La Voz (1975), De Ti Depende (1976) and Comedia (1978) will help you understand why he was probably the most mercurial vocalist that the salsa genre has ever known.

His swing, the gritty texture of his voice, an irresistible sense of humor, and the unexpected way in which he negotiated syllables and words in the lyrics of a song were some of his unique trademarks. On June 26, 1988, Lavoe had an argument with his wife Puchi, and then proceeded to throw himself from the ninth floor of a Puerto Rican hotel.

Miraculously, he landed on the relatively softer surface of an air conditioning unit, and survived the fall. He suffered multiple fractures, and his body – already ravaged by the symptoms of AIDS, heroin addiction and a severe depression – would never recover again. Still, an attempt was made by both greedy concert promoters and a despondent Lavoe himself to return to concert performances. Months after his suicide attempt, the singer was brought onstage on a wheelchair to perform the songs that make up this rare live recording.

Some of the salsa fans who happened to be there that evening recall the baroque sight of Lavoe, struggling to keep up with the orchestra, singing from the wheelchair, greeted by screams of love and weeping fans. In between songs, Lavoe speaks candidly about his hospital stay – peppering anecdotes about his misfortunes with his streetwise humor and fatalistic cosmovision. He exerts himself through a smoky performance of the lush “Periódico De Ayer,” but sounds positively joyous on “Rompe Saraguey” – inspired, perhaps, by the impeccable groove of his orchestra, led by Ray Martínez, the fiery energy of the backup vocalists and a solo spot on the congas by pioneering Cuban percussionist Patato.

The highlight of this album is a lengthy version of the ubiquitous Lavoe hit “Mi Gente.” Even though the song – written by Johnny Pacheco – is one of the most prosaic compositions in Héctor’s songbook, he has a lot of fun with it. The instrumental crescendo is reckless, and Lavoe’s improvisations are inventive and hilarious. Marred by the technical limitations of the original tape, this is still one of the best versions of “Mi Gente” in existence. Lavoe died in 1993. By the time this so-called “comeback” concert was taped, he was painfully aware of the fact that his privileged vocal chords would never be the same again. Accounts of his final years underscore the despair that he experienced – scarred by the tragic death of his young son, embittered by his inability to continue shining brightly as a salsa star. And yet, if there is one feeling that defines this recording, that would be his palpable enthusiasm at the chance to spend some time with his adoring fans. Lavoe’s purpose in this world was all about the music. Fortunately, the sublime beauty of his recorded legacy has transcended even the most painful moments of his short life.

ERNESTO LECHNER